Essentialism

Contemplating the maternal urge to nest the other day, I started thinking about what feminist theorists derisively term essentialism, the idea that there are essential differences between men and women. I heard this term for the first time my first semester in grad school, when the USC History Department’s mandatory seminar for first year students was taught by an ardent feminist. The theme for the entire two-semester course was to be gender, with the first semester spent reading on the topic and the second semester writing a paper on it. This course was really my first exposure to feminist theory, since I had done my undergrad work in the early 1980s before Women’s Studies departments and courses were on everyone’s radar screen. When I began my doctoral studies in the mid-1990s, all that had changed, and I had some catching up to do. Of course, when you come at this material as a 30-year-old married woman rather than an 18-year-old, you’re not quite so easily bedazzled by the high-flown rhetoric of theory.

What feminists call the “Second Wave” (the “First Wave” refers to the suffrage activists of the 19th century) began in the U.S. the year I was born with the publication of Betty Friedan’s The Feminine Mystique (1964), then took a radical turn in 1970 with a trio of manifestos ringing the death knell of sexual difference: Germaine Greer’s The Female Eunuch, Shulamith Firestone’s The Dialectic of Sex, and Kate Millett’s Sexual Politics. All three authors minimized biological differences between men and women, and believed that patriarchy was historically created rather than natural, and thus could be dismantled, paving the way for a world in which gender differences are all but erased, gender being the set of social roles and expectations that go along with biological sex, rather than simply a synonym for sex. Thus, technically, when you ask a pregnant woman, “Do you know the baby’s gender?” you’re misusing the term; the correct question is, “Do you know the baby’s sex?” But I digress.

Anyway, once the patriarchal bastions had been breached (as they clearly have) and traditional gender roles had been stripped of their legitimacy (as they have for a large portion of society), gender differences were supposed to “wither away” just like the post-capitalist state in Marxist theory. Only they didn’t – not states, and not gender.

Part of the problem with the radical feminists’ views of gender as 100% socially constructed was that those passionate young women writing in 1970 weren’t mothers. They could weave grandiose dreams about a brave new world of communal childcare and housekeeping that freed women to be just like men, but not one of them had ever lain in a hospital bed and been handed a tiny, helpless creature that depended upon her completely for its very survival. Childless women can read feminist theory and talk all they want about motherhood being “socially constructed” but once a woman has a baby and the reality of motherhood hits her like a ton of bricks, the theory may seem less compelling.

I honestly don’t think I am devoted to my children because I was socialized to be so. As I explained in a previous post, my mother actively discouraged me from a maternal vocation, and the culture in which I grew up was one that emphasized personal and professional accomplishments rather than traditional domesticity. And yet here I sit, letting my academic credentials gather dust as I sort and wash baby clothes, cook for my family, and teach my daughters to read. I don’t think it’s the oppressive hold of patriarchy that makes me want to do this – or think I want to, when if I’d had my consciousness properly raised I’d realize that my kids should be in daycare and I should be doing something that really matters. Call me a deluded tool of the patriarchy if you like, but in all honesty, raising my children myself rather than turning them over to “communal childcare” really does matter.

Comments 2

  1. Patrick wrote:

    I would never call you a “deluded tool of the patriarchy,” but then I’m in the patriarchy (wink, wink) and we need all the resources we can get.

    Posted 12 Jun 2008 at 7:44 pm
  2. Laura Herndon wrote:

    I love reading your blog! I try to look at least once a day to see if you have anything new. All I have to say about this article is, “AMEN SISTER”!

    Posted 12 Jun 2008 at 9:32 pm

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